Samus Returns is a rather excellent example of how just having good moment-to-moment gameplay can help with overcoming an essentially weak structure.
Because the thing is, Samus Returns is a rather terrible example of what used to make a Metroid game stand out, back before so many other games were copying its formula. Where other games have aped the formula, none of them have really captured the atmosphere: the feeling of isolation and helplessness, of venturing into the unknown and improving yourself, specifically so you could go on and explore more stuff. The worlds felt vast but intricately intertwined. Each had least one moment where you found yourself back at a place you'd been before, but from a new angle, with all new gear, going "holy crap, how the hell did I get back here?" It gave you a chance to re-explore an area you maybe hadn't been to in a while, mop up upgrades, and see how your new abilities change the way you interact with a part of the world you're already familiar with.
Everything about Samus Returns is clearly designed to be as linear and direct as possible. This is a game that never wants you to feel lost, but as a result, it never allows you to feel surprised. It just tells you where the next thing is, you go over, scan the area, find the thing, and move on. You can challenge yourself by making yourself not use these extra aids (the thing that gives you waypoints is a static spot you have to return to in each area, and the scan is a pulse you have to activate) but even still the layouts are as straight as possible. Just follow the path, get the Maguffins, and when you're done, it moves you to the next area.
In fact, all of the areas in the game are separated by elevators that make the space feel less organic. Instead of feeling like a series of caverns that you're picking your way through, each area might as well be a discrete level pulled from a select screen. Previous games like Super Metroid have had elevators, sure, but they also had alternate paths you'd discover to get from place to place.
Your main mission is to hunt down and destroy every Metroid on the planet and thus end their existence. These really feel like a missed opportunity - instead of taking the chance to make each encounter feel unique and new, it's the same 4 enemy types repeated over and over until they're all dead. It gets monotonous really quickly and never breaks itself up. They're just the same types of fights, and they strain my patience. Oh look, this again. Well, I already know the technique so.... just repeat it.... and move on. It's less a thrill and more a slog. And when you have to repeat it four dozen times, you'd hopefully have something that feels a bit more thrilling to do.
The only Metroids that really were fun to fight were the last two varieties just because they were bigger and had more attack patterns. I'm pretty sure these are all just limits carried over from the original version of this game, but it's a reimagining – why not reimagine something more interesting? Add a couple more types? The developers did add a couple of non-Metroid fights that weren't in the original, and made the Metroids themselves far more dynamic, but more variance in this one would still have been appreciated.
All of this repetition makes Samus Returns feel like it's wearing out by the time you get about halfway through, when you realize you've already done this over 20 times and still have to do it over 20 more. Luckily, a lot of the mechanics and upgrades are good enough to carry you through to the end, with a couple of them in particular standing out.
Like Samus' new parry attack. When enemies charge you, you can hit a button at the right time and she'll essentially smack them away, put them in a stunned state, and make her next attack much stronger. It's a good mechanic, and the use of it on the bosses is a lot of fun, but the game also seems to rely on it a little too much. Almost every enemy charges you when they see you – it makes the already-samey-feeling enemies start to feel even samier, but luckily they all telegraph their attacks so heavily that you can avoid getting hit pretty easily.
A mechanic I really appreciated in particular was the free aim mode, where Samus plants her feet and has a full 360 degrees of rotation on her arm canon. This allows for far more accuracy and the ability for you to target specific blocks, hit enemies from afar, and hit the weakpoints of certain enemies. Plus, the animation on it just looks great! I don't really know what it is, but there's a smoothness and fluidness to her motions that's just great to look at, and makes her look ready, prepared, professional.
The other big new mechanics here are the ones that use Aeion energy. I'm a little conflicted on these ones mostly because they seem more like weird gimmicks in a lot of ways rather than something I'd like to see in other Metroid games. Like the one that slows down time – I guess it can be used to make yourself do more damage to enemies before they can attack you, but for the most part, it's really just used in a couple of spots to get over some collapsing blocks.
The ones that are great are the overshield (especially because boss enemies give SO MUCH DAMAGE) and the rapid fire attack. Those ones are a lot of fun to use, and feel much more necessary. I also appreciate the scan pulse, which reveals areas on the map and breakable blocks on screen, but it felt like the developers had started to obfuscate the level design in a lot of places in an effort to make you have to use it - which is annoying but definitely far LESS annoying than old games in the series. Those would give you these kinds of dead ends, and you'd just have to sort of luckily figure out what you were supposed to do on your own.
And as with all games of this ilk, by the time you get to the end, even just the simple act of jumping around feels amazing. And if you do take the chance to make yourself go back to the beginning by the time you're near the end of the game, it feels great to just explore and find how different everything is. Vertical areas fall under the might of your spin jump. Areas full of previously difficult enemies completely fall to attacks that pierce walls and armor. Not sure what the best route is? Just power bomb a room!
It definitely overstays its welcome, and it's far from the best in the series, it's been so long since there was a Metroid game that it's nice to see it back here on the 3DS. I feel like they've built strong mechanics, which can hopefully serve a more varied and interesting quest in a future entry to the series, maybe one that DOESN'T involve doing the same fights over and over the entire game. Samus Returns is definitely a step up from the original Metroid 2, but it is unable to touch the heights of both the series and the genre.
Also, a quick note:
I feel that it's in incredibly bad taste that the series continues the tradition of giving you more scantily-clad versions of Samus as a "reward" screen based on how well you do. This one breaks it down further by difficulty – normal gets you Zero Suit, hard gets you a version of it without leggings, and the Amiibo-only Fusion mode has her in essentially a sports bra and boy shorts. Like come on. No one's surprised anymore that Samus is a girl – the only reason this is there is to titillate, and it really hurts the idea that Metroid is trying to present Samus as a badass feminist sci-fi hero. Here's your badass space hero presented as an object for you to ogle because you earned it. You fulfilled the right conditions, and you now have more access to her body! I'd love to see Nintendo move away from this, but now that Zero Suit Samus is actually a character in her own right, I'm really not expecting it to change. It's still gross, and we should demand more from the series.